All the Great Plans…


Yesterday afternoon, we were gathered at MacLeod Ale to celebrate Quirino’s birthday. We sat along a wooden table in the back, near the bags of hops. People were playing darts. The front door was closed, the air conditioning was on, we ate BBQ tri-tip beef (marinated in MacLeod). And we were discussing Van Nuys over warm and cold beer.

A young guy named Daniel sat across from me. He had worked under Former Councilman (Congressman!) Tony Cardenas and is now in the city planning department. Andreas asked him if he thought Van Nuys might be the new Highland Park.

“Not now, maybe not ever,” Daniel said.

15900528579_abeca9a14b_o
“Highland Park Market” Photo by Lance Leong / Flickr

Daniel was versed, in the somnambulistic and arcane zoning laws of Los Angeles, the kind that mandate how much parking is needed and what height a building can be, if additional units of housing can go up if some rents come down. And how many feet away from a school is permissible for a liquor store? And who can put up a 1200 sf granny flat in their backyard (the answer is you).

His generalized, and probably correct assertion is that Highland Park has an active and engaged group of residents and Van Nuys does not. The same is true of more affluent and contentious areas like Studio City or Woodland Hills. In those places, where planters and trees now line the boulevards, bike lanes are carved out, and revitalized shops, apartments, housing are going in. Much of the credit goes to the people who live there.

Van Nuys complains. But it never unites to fight for its betterment. Much easier to bicker on the Next Door app.

ucla_freeway_construction
Construction of the Santa Monica Freeway 1961. (USC)

Also at our table was white-haired, impassioned, articulate Howard who is on the VNNC. He is smart, accomplished, a lifelong resident of Los Angeles who grew up near Venice and Fairfax and watched the demolition of housing during the construction of the Santa Monica Freeway in the early 1960s. At that time, thousands of old houses, many architecturally notable, were bulldozed.

Howard recalled the dirt berm that extended for fifteen miles after the houses came down. “At night you could hear the rats, there were millions of them, and they ran and scurried and made noise.”

The Santa Monica Freeway was part of the big plan for Los Angeles. As was the Van Nuys Civic Center, Dodger Stadium, Bunker Hill, and the Federal Building in Westwood. In all these cases the results were less than stellar. Walkable, vibrant, historic, human scaled places were obliterated. And what remains today are acres of baked asphalt and mute modernism.

DSCF0031

Howard said that the planned redevelopment of Van Nuys Boulevard, to make it a transit hub, to put a light rail down the center, to install bike lanes, to increase the allowable height of apartments, all of these progressive ideas, pushed by everyone from New Urbanists to developers and transit advocates, would be a “disaster for Van Nuys.” Many small businesses would close and the area would turn into something worse than even the hellish condition it currently is in.

So simultaneously, he decried the automobile oriented era of the Santa Monica Freeway and mimicked the impending one of density and pedestrian oriented development.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”- F. Scott Fitzgerald

And yet his views do make sense if you consider that every time big ideas come to Los Angeles, they are somehow, like a good-looking wannabe actor/model from the hinterlands, deflated and defeated by this city.

DSCF0014

 


Renderings by Gensler Courtesy of Psomas
Renderings by Gensler Courtesy of Psomas

The daily assassination of youthful idealism is the oldest tradition in our city.

In the built environment there is also something here that abhors a unifying concept of planning and harmony. If a building can be built to stick out and look freaky and out-of-place it is deserving of praise.

In architecture, as in politics and entertainment, the bigger the carnival and the louder the wreck, the more applause, the more profits. That’s what we are aiming to create.

When we do get together under some banner like Mayor Villaraigosa’s “Million Trees” or Mayor Garcetti’s “Great Streets” the gods start to laugh at us. We are best at half-hearted, half-completed projects.

And perhaps that negative is a good thing. One must give Los Angeles credit, not only for attempting to build massive public works, but for making sure that once the great works go up, small indignities, like homeless encampments along the Orange Line Bike Path, will sober up dreamers and urban fantasists.

All the Great Plans are like those coffee-house conferences with laptops, planning to produce and cast and finance something, someday….


la-1463068477-snap-photo
The Agence Ter plan. (Pershing Square Renew)

la-1463064134-snap-photo

On the drawing board now is a new park in Pershing Square.

Two years ago, I went with a group of photographers to shoot the city on a Sunday afternoon and was told I could not put my camera on a tripod. This was in the same park where mattresses were laid out and people sprawled down stairs drunk and asleep.

A public park where public photography is regulated by private security.

What you should be able to do in public you cannot, and what you should NOT do, is allowable.


And then there is MacLeod Ale, a private venture, started by two people over 50, using family money and retirement funds to make great beer.

That one small incubator of beer seems to produce more ideas for the betterment of Van Nuys than any political slogan coming out of City Hall.

Throw out all the great plans for Van Nuys.

Start small, dream big, pursue your own venture. Maybe that is the key to change.

 

 

The Lost Art of Selling Auto Parts.


Back when Los Angeles was younger, at the dawn of the automobile age after World War I, tires, gasoline and cars were sold in buildings and displayed in a manner befitting a jewelry store.

Among the rich archives of the USC Digital Library, are photographs of local businesses, who put extraordinary artistry into their signage and architecture to draw in customers, while projecting an image of modernity attractive to the growing city.

Many of these photos come from the Dick Whittington Studio.

The Festival of Garbage


For anyone who lives in Van Nuys, and has not lately visited Raymer St. between Kester and Van Nuys Bl., the Festival of Garbage is now in full display.

Dumped along the median from the bridge to the boulevard are tons of trash. It is perhaps the filthiest, most appalling and most wretched scene of degradation in the entire city of Los Angeles.

Calcutta looks like Beverly Hills compared to this.

Across from the sanitation crisis is a large recycling center, an irony that one might analogize to having an indifferent fire department next door to a burning building. If you are in the business of collecting refuse, how can you refuse to clean up the area around your business?

Adding to the criminality of the area, dozens of unhitched trucking trailers are parked along the road, taking up space, and attached to no moving vehicles.

The bridge over the railroad tracks has been, naturally, taken over by the homeless who live under, in and on top of the structure. They cross on foot over the tracks where Metrolink speeds by a few times an hour.

Does Los Angeles have any measure of pride? How does the city allow this tsunami of trash?

Who is responsible for this mess?

I vote for Councilwoman Nury Martinez and Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Observations Atop the 134 Bridge After the Storm.


LA River/Griffith Park

After many days of successive, concussive waves of rain swirling into Los Angeles, the hills in Griffith Park were wet, green, and soaked.

I walked there, yesterday afternoon, along the bike path, and the bridle path, at the point where the 134 roars alongside the LA River.

LA River/Griffith Park griffith-park-after-rain-6

The storm, now depleted, had moved east, sent into exile. And in the distance, under dark clouds, I saw the Verdugo Mountains, the flat roofed towers of Glendale, and all the man-made highways and power lines: showered and renewed, glistening and spot lighted by sun.

The littered homeless encampment on the island in the middle of the river was vacated. There was nobody else around but me, except for a lone man riding a child’s bike.

griffith-park-after-rain-2

A bridge over the waters and the freeway, a bridge under construction, its metal rods exposed, a messy conglomeration of concrete, lumber, fencing and plywood, that incomplete, torn-up bridge evoked others before her time destroyed by floods.

Angelenos in the 1930s and before lived in fear of the river and put their hope in President Roosevelt. Now we trust the river and fear our president.

Once we trembled under the fury of nature. Now we shudder under the drama of political malfeasance.

After 1940, the army conquered the unpredictable river, contained its fast water, and controlled its deadly fury.

Tomorrow, we trust, we hope, will fold out and reveal itself as it did in Genesis.

“Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. And God said

never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

 “As long as the earth endures,

seedtime and harvest,

cold and heat,

summer and winter,

day and night

will never cease.”

LA River/Griffith Park

A Sharp Discordance.


d732dfc940c1bf441606f771482ac23c ciros-entrance-sunset-blvd-1940 melody-room-1956 the-source-sunset-blvd-strip-then trocadero

In the past few years, group lead mourning on social media for a lost Sunset Strip has taken hold among some sad eyed nostalgists. In their online rooms they pine for 1997, 1977, 1957 or 1937 and wish it were just like that today.

Gone are Tower Records, Elton John’s Le Dome Restaurant, Spago, The Playboy Club; Gazzari’s, which introduced the world to The Doors and Van Halen; Villa Nova Restaurant where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe had a first date; Ciro’s, a 1940s nightclub; and Café Trocadero. Passed on are the cars, the clothes, the songs, and the youth of those who frequented whatever was young and hot at the time.

We are so far in the future but our minds are so far in the past.

Perhaps the saddest thing to contemplate is the loss of the old Garden of Allah that stood on two acres at the corner of Crescent Heights and Sunset and comprised a pool and landscaped cottages set amidst trees and flowers. It was constructed in 1913 and played host to a variety of notables, most famously F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was razed in 1960.

garden-of-allah-villas-011 ada92154fc584a2c5c28c3cdc3ecc04f

Standing in its place is a schlocky shopping mall and a bank with a folded zigzag roof. That structure, originally called Lytton Savings and Loan, and now housing a Chase Bank, is the center of a fight over preservation and architect Frank Gehry, who wants to demolish the building to erect one of his crushed-in-hand, aluminum foil wonders.

Lytton Savings and Loan (1960); now Chase Bank.
Lytton Savings and Loan (1960); now Chase Bank.
Proposed Frank Gehry design. (LA TIMES)
Proposed Frank Gehry design. (LA TIMES)

If Sunset Strip had no celebrities, if it were just a place, it would be one of the ugliest and least appealing urban sites in the world. Pockmarked by billboards, drenched in liquor and demeaned by fame, the Strip, from Crescent Heights to La Cienega looks like Las Vegas’s forgotten cousin.

New buildings are going up that channel the worst of Las Vegas anti-urbanism with blank sheets of walls, endless rows of dark windows, and morose hues of black and gray punctuated by large rectangles where future digital signs will obliterate the night and frazzle the eye.

img_3794 img_3793 img_3791 img_3789

There is no gayety (in the old sense of the word), no frivolity, no fantasy in any of the new, sharp-angled structures that so aggressively bulk up the street like steroid filled bouncers in a club. They have inhuman, robotic, cold-blooded designs, fueled by architecture that will impress teenage Shanghai, Moscow, and Seoul.

And, sadly, there is no presence of personality or character of Los Angeles in the new buildings. They are aliens dropped onto the street, and their presence is foreboding and corporate.

In daylight, photographed in black and white, their vapidity is most evident.

img_3788

Old Los Angeles was in love with alabaster white buildings that glistened in the sun and reflected purity, cleanliness and España. Before 1940, this metropolis built to provide sanctuary from the sun, to humanize the city, and to give guidance and signposts to the newly arrived seeking meaning in a vast and disorienting environment.

New Los Angeles has no markers of civic virtue. It is an entertainment chessboard devised on an app and sent out to to billions of people to make billions of dollars.

 

 

Tom Cluster’s Van Nuys (1955-1962).


map
Cluster Home: 6944 Columbus south of Marlin Pl.

A few weeks ago I received a lovely email, and some photos from Tom Cluster, a reader of this blog.

Here is one excerpt:

Dear Andy,

I just discovered your blog about Van Nuys.  I’m entranced by it.  I’m almost 70.  Our family moved to 6944 Columbus Avenue in the summer of 1955.  It was a small tract of new homes.  We moved from Westchester (near LAX).  A lot of people moved from Westchester to the Valley because the airport was expanding and streets were being eaten up.  Our new neighborhood was between Kester, Vose, Sepulveda, and Vanowen.

andy_devine

Andy Devine (1905-77)
Andy Devine (1905-77)

The local celebrity was Andy Devine, who still lived in his big house on 6947 Kester, down near Basset.  At Halloween he’d hand out small boxes of Sugar Pops.  There was an old swimming pool across the street that he had built years before – the Crystal Plunge – and we’d swim there in the summer. We had smog alerts in those days and if there was a big rain we wouldn’t go to school because Kester St. would flood.

There was a family on Vose who sold eggs from their chickens – the mother and father had survived the Holocaust and had the tattooed numbers on their forearms.

[Then as now] It would get hot and there was no air conditioning, not at Valerio School (which in 1955-1956 was at the corner of Kester and Valerio, consisting entirely of temporary buildings with a dirt playground) and not in our homes.  Still, I have fond memories of Van Nuys.

Valerio St. School June 1956
Valerio St. School June 1956

The area where the Presbyterian Hospital is now was a big empty field full of tumbleweeds – we’d make forts and paths there.  When the hospital was built it was small compared to what it is today.  It was just two circular wings designed by William Leonard Pereira. (1909-1985) of  Pereira and Luckman.

March 18, 1957 reads "Discussing modern innovations of Valley Presbyterian Hospital, nearing completion at 15107 Vanowen St., are Mrs. Barbara Holt, member of hospital's board of directors, and from left, J. H. Wray, Jim Cross and Walter Rueff, members of San Fernando Automobile Dealers Association committee for hospital's fund drive."  (LAPL)
March 18, 1957 reads “Discussing modern innovations of Valley Presbyterian Hospital, nearing completion at 15107 Vanowen St., are Mrs. Barbara Holt, member of hospital’s board of directors, and from left, J. H. Wray, Jim Cross and Walter Rueff, members of San Fernando Automobile Dealers Association committee for hospital’s fund drive.” (LAPL)
Valley Presbyterian Hospital, 15107 Vanowen Street, Van Nuys, designed by Pereira & Luckman. Photograph dated January 15, 1964 Ph: Geo. Brich
Valley Presbyterian Hospital, 15107 Vanowen Street, Van Nuys, designed by Pereira & Luckman. Photograph dated January 15, 1964 Ph: Geo. Brich
Photograph caption dated February 20, 1961 reads "Larry Peskin, 17, left, 10038 Noble St., Sepulveda, completes hospital course. Fellow graduate examining syringe is Warren Wilkinson, 17, 9439 Louise Ave., Northridge." The young men completed a 20-hour training course to become volunteers at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys. Ph: Jon Woods
Photograph caption dated February 20, 1961 reads “Larry Peskin, 17, left, 10038 Noble St., Sepulveda, completes hospital course. Fellow graduate examining syringe is Warren Wilkinson, 17, 9439 Louise Ave., Northridge.” The young men completed a 20-hour training course to become volunteers at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys. Ph: Jon Woods
January 5, 1959 reads "Janet Kellenberger, 15, and Jackie Suess, 17, members of Candy Stripers, from left, aid Sea Scouts Bob Wheeler, 17; Steve Bidwell, 16, and Mike Strange, 15, in volunteer cleanup program of Valley Presbyterian Hospital. Sea Scouts, auxiliary of Explorer Scouts of America, and other organizations volunteer work hours for Van Nuys medical center."
January 5, 1959 reads “Janet Kellenberger, 15, and Jackie Suess, 17, members of Candy Stripers, from left, aid Sea Scouts Bob Wheeler, 17; Steve Bidwell, 16, and Mike Strange, 15, in volunteer cleanup program of Valley Presbyterian Hospital. Sea Scouts, auxiliary of Explorer Scouts of America, and other organizations volunteer work hours for Van Nuys medical center.”

(Valley Presbyterian Hospital images courtesy of LAPL)

If you look at a map, you’ll see that Noble, Burnett, and Columbus extend from Basset to Marlin Place – the 6900 block.  The houses from 6900 up to 6932 were built in 1951, the houses beginning at 6932 were built in 1955.  Our houses (6932 and up) were in an old walnut grove, so there was plenty of shade.

I’ve attached a picture out front of our house.  The older end of the street didn’t have walnut trees and it always seemed hot.  What we didn’t understand was that the walnut trees would all soon die because sidewalks and asphalt and lawns aren’t good for them.  At that point our end of the street got hot and the trees that had been planted at the other end of the street grew up and gave it shade.  We moved out in 1962.  The people who bought our house are still there – probably the longest residing family in that block of Columbus.

1955-dec-burningleaves dec55sarahrakingleaves

My beautiful picture
My beautiful picture

If you look at Street View for 6944 Columbus you’ll see that it’s perfectly manicured.  The builder of our little tract was named Arthur Guyer – he built tracts throughout the Valley.  He built 15153 Marlin Place for himself in about 1957.

There was another local celebrity on that street, although he wasn’t famous then.  The Cerf family lived at 6932 Columbus, and Vinton Cerf, the oldest son, was attending Robert Fulton Jr. High.  Vinton is famous as the “father of the Internet”.  He and a buddy invented TCP/IP while at UCLA. The Cerfs left Van Nuys about the same time we did.

I won’t bore you with my memories of all the commercial establishments, but I will mention that Kenny’s Automotive at 14852 Vanowen, near Kester, was there in the 1950’s, just as it is today.  Another hold out from the old days is Lloyd’s Market, at 7219 Kester.  It was called Lloyd’s even back then, and we’d stop there every day when we walked home from Valerio.

More to come…..